A right to be wrong

To the Editor:

I have spent a 40-year career defending the First Amendment, defending the rights of others to disagree with me and defending the rights of newspapers to be wrong. Nonetheless, I was saddened to read the Islander’s Aug. 17 editorial “Political Redundancy” with its denunciation of “the filing of lawsuits, circulation of petitions and other backdoor methods to achieve results.”

Let me gently remind the Islander of the lawsuits that have preserved its right to publish whatever opinions it holds and whatever “facts” it believes to be true. In 1735, a newspaper printer, John Peter Zenger, was jailed for daring to criticize the governor of New York but acquitted by a jury which endorsed his right to speak truth to power. This case led our founders to draft the First Amendment, which mandates that Congress can pass no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Until 1931, the First Amendment did not constrain states or towns from censoring newspapers when the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to that practice.

Finally, in New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court in 1964 put an end to southern state officials stifling critical coverage of their civil rights records by filing libel suits against newspapers like the Times.

Had they shown more obedience to local officials, each of these three publishers would have not pursued litigation. Because each chose to fight for principle, we are a richer country and the Islander is free to publish whatever it wants.

It is ironic that the Islander, the beneficiary of a 282-year-old battle in the courts to preserve the freedom of the press, should denounce the “filing of lawsuits.” Lawsuits preserve the rule of law. It is ironic that the paper should denounce the “circulation of petitions,” a right preserved in the very next clause of the First Amendment.

Those residents of Bar Harbor who join a residents association will be exercising the right to assemble and petition that protects organizations such as the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps, like the chamber, they will encourage others to run for the Town Council or sign up for the Warrant Committee. Right now, every member of the Town Council is a current or former business owner. Would we not benefit if we had people who were teachers, nurses and lab workers also serve?

Those of us who supported Article 13 lost the election but may have won the argument. Had MDOT, with the council’s ready agreement, not inserted a poison pill that voided the right of the town to buy the ferry terminal if 13 passed, I doubt 13 would have been defeated.

The proponents of 12 repeatedly insisted that its passage did not mean that a huge docking pier for huge cruise ships would be built. Most voters for 12 believed them. A residents association will simply hold those proponents of 12 to their promises.

I will leave to others the task of pointing out why the Islander editorial is dead wrong as to monies spent on 13, the margin of defeat and the “civility” sessions, the last of which was cancelled rather than let proponents of Article 13 have an equal voice.

These are all part of the Islander’s constitutional right to be wrong, a right I will always defend. I note that we were obliged to spend more money on ads once the Islander began declining to publish some letters from proponents of 13, myself included.

But when the Islander denounces in its editorial one side of the debate as being “antitown,” it crosses a line of propriety akin to Joseph McCarthy’s denunciation of those with whom he disagreed as “anti-American.”

Is this how the Islander wishes to restore civility? Margaret Chase Smith would roll over in her grave to see this word used by a Maine newspaper.

Arthur Greif

Bar Harbor

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